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Wildlife in Kingston - Ash to Ashes?

Saturday 10 November 2012

Who could have imagined, even a few weeks ago, the news that over the next 10 years or so up to one third of all the trees in Britain will be killed by a fungus? It sounds like something from a post-apocalyptic novel but it seems very likely, now that so-called ash dieback disease has been found in some mature woodlands, including those in Sussex.

Not surprisingly, no one has counted the ash trees in this country but it’s been estimated that there may be 80,000,000 or more. The loss of trees on this scale is unprecedented and will far exceed that of elms in the 1970s and 80s.

The impact may be felt very heavily here in Kingston. For example, the wood at the top of The Street consists mostly of ash and the plantation below Kingston Hill is almost all of this species. From this plantation, ash trees, their seeds borne in the wind, have been colonising the north-facing Downland slopes for many decades and are now well established there and at the top of the hill. Many of these trees may well be doomed.

Landowners in the village, as elsewhere, may be faced with a tough choice, especially with regard to mature trees. Do they cut them down soon while the wood still has value as timber or hope that they may be among the 10% or so of trees that will prove to be immune, assuming that ash disease here follows the same pattern as in the rest of northern Europe?

Decisions about the fate of some individual trees will be even harder. The ash tree in St Pancras churchyard is one of Kingston’s most magnificent and may be one of the very oldest in the county. Its removal would leave a gaping hole in a picture much loved and familiar to everyone in this village. It would also, incidentally, be a rather costly operation.

However, there is more than a crumb of comfort to be found here - because of the dynamism of nature. As the ash trees die, they will become food for a vast number of invertebrates, which - in turn - will support insect-eating birds. In their weakened state, trees will no doubt support a range of other fungi, besides the deadly Chalara fraxinea that began the slow process of their slow demise. Ultimately, the gaps in woodland left by dead and dying ash trees will let in unaccustomed light which itself will have both immediate and longer term consequences – first a resurgent ground flora, then a spread, in many areas, of bramble and of shrubs and trees like birch which are able to colonise new areas quickly and finally the establishment of replacement high forest trees such as oak. The ash is such a common tree that it is almost inevitable that our woodlands will be completely transformed within the space of a generation. Numerous PhDs will no doubt be written on the topic of ecological succession in woodlands previously dominated by ash!

On a less dramatic note, my thanks go to several people who’ve let me know about nuthatches (or, anyway, one nuthatch (no one has yet seen two birds together) visiting their garden. This bird appears to have feasted on at least ten different feeders in the village since September. More news, as ever, on this bird or any other topic will be very welcome.

- Steve Berry